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How New York Created a Solar Boom

Currently, there are 3,215 installation projects throughout the city—triple the amount from 2014.

Last October, Elon Musk introduced Tesla’s new solar paneled roof shingles on the Los Angeles set of the television show, Desperate Housewives. The shingles, which are expected to be available for purchase some time this year, come in four different options designed to mimic the look of terracotta, slate, or asphalt. Gesturing to the manicured houses around him, Musk revealed that each was completely solar-powered.

While Musk’s innovative new product will undoubtedly push the solar energy industry further into the mainstream, its introduction on Wisteria Lane is targeted at a distinctly suburban—and West Coast—lifestyle. Absent from this vision are the dense urban areas of the less sunny Northeast megalopolis, whose population is expected to grow to 58 million by 2025. How does this condensed stretch of the country fare in the trajectory of solar energy?

As it turns out, New York City—the region's densest metropolis—is in the midst of a solar boom, with installations in the residential sector leading the way. In 2016, the number of residential projects across the five boroughs rose to more than 5,300 from 186 in 2011—the majority being located in Staten Island and Queens. Currently, there are 3,215 solar installation projects—both residential and non-residential—throughout the city. Since the beginning of 2014, the amount of solar power installed across the city has tripled.

Solar growth in New York over the past decade can be attributed in large part to the efforts of the City University of New York’s sustainability initiatives, known officially as Sustainable CUNY. According to Tria Case, University Director of Sustainability at the City University of New York (CUNY) and lead for the NYC Solar Partnership, the institution’s involvement in New York’s push for solar started in 2006. At the time, solar capacity in the City was less than a megawatt. (According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the current national average of homes powered by just one megawatt of solar photovoltaics is 164.) “One of the first things we did in 2006 was to identify the barriers to solar in the city, as well as the possible solutions,” says Case. “We found that the different agencies charged with permitting solar—including the Department of Buildings, the FDNY, and Con Edison—were not necessarily communicating with each other."

So the institution teamed up with the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and the NYC Economic Development Corporation to form the NYC Solar Partnership, which has been leading comprehensive federal initiatives to remove barriers to large-scale solar distribution since 2007. In 2008, the City of New York passed legislation to provide property tax abatements for solar panel expenditures, making the cost of installation comparable to places outside of New York. 

One of the early efforts made by Sustainable CUNY and ConEdison to make solar installation more accessible was to create “Solar Empowerment Zones,” or “Strategic Zones,” in each borough. These designated areas were found to be most viable in their respective regions for solar power, and so projects within their boundaries have been made eligible for additional financial incentives, reducing the costs associated with installation.

By 2011, Sustainable CUNY and the NYC Solar Partnership had charted every single building in the city to create a comprehensive map detailing solar potential. This past summer, an expanded version—the first statewide map—was unveiled. The 2016 map also includes additional “layers,” which allow you to isolate a number of different statistics, from the number of government solar installations to the installed solar capacity in each county. Many of the layers are updated on a weekly basis to provide the most current information.

In addition to providing a plethora of data on the present state of solar power in New York, the map is also intended to assist individuals with the planning of their own solar installation projects. After entering your address, a solar potential calculator determines annual savings, out-of-pocket costs, and estimated monthly solar energy production for that particular location. Google’s Project Sunroof, which was introduced in 2015, offers similar data analysis: when you enter “solar energy” into a Google search, a solar savings estimator prompting you to enter your home address appears before the search results.

In conjunction with a series of initiatives by Governor Cuomo and mayor de Blasio, these tools have helped to highlight solar power as a practical and accessible energy alternative. In 2014, Governor Cuomo committed to a nearly $1 billion stimulation of the marketplace and an increase in the number of solar electric systems across the state over 10 years—enough to power 400,000 homes. Last year, Mayor de Blasio introduced Solarize NYC, a citywide program designed to increase solar through community group purchasing over the next decade, lowering costs by 10 to 20 percent and increasing solar capacity in communities that have had limited access to solar. ConEdison has also made efforts to make solar more accessible in low-income areas by installing panels on their own buildings and sharing benefits with customers who cannot bear the costs of installation themselves.

Through numerous partnerships, exhaustive data compilation, the streamlining of bureaucratic processes, and innovative new models for generating large-scale solar energy, solar in New York City is becoming mainstream. “Our efforts—especially the solar map—have really showed the potential for solar in the city and throughout the state,” says Case. “Solar really helps everyone. The more solar on rooftops, the less the grid is constrained—and people are starting to understand that now.”

The series is made possible with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, and is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Connect with Van Alen Institute on VanAlen.org.

About the Author

  • Alex Klimoski is an assistant editor at Architectural Record magazine. She has previously written for the Architect’s Newspaper. In 2016, as a graduate student in the School of Visual Arts MA in Design Writing, Research and Criticism program, she served as a researcher for Van Alen Sessions, a short-documentary series presented with The Atlantic and CityLab highlighting current debates about urban infrastructure.